Death By Nanny Goat Part II: The Completely Predictable Sequel

It was the plot twist that no one (read – everyone) saw coming: the two neglected and rogue goats from my last blog wormed their furry-ass way into the hearts of Tanya and David, which is about as difficult as blinking.

But let’s back it up to where we last left off.

In Death By Nanny Goat, I detailed my harrowing near-death experience with the two neglected goats living next door to David and Tanya.

In a flurry of weeds, dirt, chains, horns and bleats, my life flashed before my life and I knew I would never quite be the same again.

Surprisingly, and with zero regard to my well-being, readers of this blog instead registered concern for the welfare of the two goats.

Whilst inwardly marvelling at the strangeness of humanity, I passed these concerns on to Tanya and tried to get on with a life where everything is now different.

Tanya acknowledged these concerns and said she had a plan.

This is what happened next:

Tanya, the embodiment of good-natured common-sense, continued to visit the goats daily and bring them plant-based treats. She unravelled their shortened chains from their pickets and made sure they had fresh water. I believe a salt lick was also arranged at some point.

Then, like a cobra coiled and biding its time until the perfect moment, she struck.

The “striking” occurred about a week later when she marched up to the neighbour who owned the goats and politely asked if she might borrow them to assist in landscaping her yard.

The owner advised that he would think about it and get back to her.

In the meantime (and knowing nothing of these events) I journeyed up to visit her and David one Sunday evening.

When I arrived, an unsurprising sight greeted me: my nemesis’ were happily tethered in Tanya’s yard, looking like happiness itself as they stood hock-deep in luscious, dark green grass.

Tanya and David were buoyant in their triumph.

Billy (or as he is now strictly known as, “Billy-G”) had an old saddle blanket fashioned into a little coat draped lovingly over his back.

Nanny (who is now known as “Casper”) was standing royally in the finest patch of soft grass, and deigning to endure Tanya’s exuberant pats and kisses.

Even an old veteran of Goat Warfare like me could see that they were happy and looked as cute as cuddles ‘n kisses.

I gave Billy-G some pats and told him how handsome he looked in his new coat. He bleated back at me in a low, dignified sort of way.

Then we all rounded on Casper and gave him (because we found out he’s a boy!) The Love. We took some photos and acted like a Happy Hallmark family for a few minutes. Then the little bastard stood on my foot and left a big purple bruise. The rivalry continues.

Later, in the house, Tanya received a text message from the goats’ owner. He told her in a cheeky sort of way that she may hire the goats from him for a dollar each per week.

“So….you just took them anyway before the owner had even given you permission?” I asked her blankly.

“Yes!!” She shouted joyfully, and then danced around the kitchen singing about her cat, Kitty-N.

This is why we love Tanya.

Of course, it would only be a matter of time before the goats found their way into the house. A few days later Tanya sent me a photo of Casper on their front veranda. Closer.

Then, a day ago, I received video footage of Billy-G. In the house. Climbing over the coffee table to get onto the couch where Tanya was sitting. Bingo.

So, it is safe to say that our furry friends (or enemies, depending whose side you’re on) have met with a fairy-tale ending. From neglect and misery and ill-health to rolling green hills, home-tailored coats and extraordinarily permissive friends who indulge them lovingly every day.

I suspect that they planned this all along and used their goatish charms to thus persuade Tanya.

Well played, goats. Well played.





Death by Nanny-Goat

The day started out auspiciously enough.

To begin with, it was a Saturday and I was visiting two of my favourite people. I had earlier spent the morning at the beach, and then in the late afternoon had driven into the mountains to visit family.

It was shortly after I arrived that Tanya said, “We have new neighbours.” There was something in her voice which made it clear these neighbours were not Smiths or Joneses.

“Oh yes?” I responded, thinking maybe they were drug dealers or celebrities.

“Yes,” she continued confidently. “Two goats.”

“Oohhhhh,” was my response. I didn’t really know what else to say.

Tanya went on to explain that their closest neighbours had recently acquired two goats which were super cute. The owners, however, did not look after them properly. On a massive block of acreage, they were kept permanently chained to metal poles in the middle of a rocky dirt field with no access to shelter. Their chains (about five meters long) would get twisted around the poles and shortened on a daily basis. The goats had one dirty, slime-slicked plastic container of water to share between them. It didn’t get changed a lot. And when the goats ranged about and got their chains twisted around their poles, they invariably could not reach their water.

We walked a few minutes’ to where these new neighbours resided. Their permanent address was  a large circle in a parched  field about 200 metres from their owners’ house. They had eaten most of the grass already.

I have very little experience in goats. I would go so far as to say none, with the exception of the petting zoo which visited my primary school once.

The first goat I met was Billy. He was Billy because of the massive ball sack slapping around behind him. Billy was black, had matted, dirt-caked fur, an abnormal growth in his belly and enormous horns. Despite all of this, Billy was quite friendly,

The second goat was Nanny. Nanny was tall and slender, whereas Billy was short and squat. Nanny was white and, I was soon to learn, quite aggressive.

Now, it is important at this juncture to understand that Tanya is the Animal Whisperer. She has no fear, and exudes and genuine love and understanding of animals. She will march right up to an aggressive goat and demand to cuddle it, with no thought that it could headbutt her or attempt to eat her pants. If it is being bossy, she finds it cute.

I, however, have a more cautious way about me when it comes to animals larger than a cat or dog. I wanted to trust Billy and Nanny. I really did. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that Billy’s monstrous horns where going to meet with my poor, fleshy bottom. Or that Nanny’s hooves were going to somehow kick the shit out of me whilst I lay curled in a foetal position on the rocky ground, yelling for her to stop. “Ow- (kick) stop, Nanny, please stoopppp (stomp)!!!”

I had finished patting sweet, horned Billy. Tanya was giving Nanny some attention, and I was hanging around nearby, looking like the pole to that which she was tied to, albeit white-coloured.

Suddenly there was a flurry of activity. Nanny started bleating and circling me. At the same time, Tanya was trying to unravel her knotted chain and make it longer. My life flashed before my eyes as Nanny’s chain wrapped tightly around my knees not once, but twice.  I couldn’t move. I was hobbled. Nanny bleated at me.

Rarely have I felt so helpless. Here, looking into the shrewd eye of the white-and-pink Nanny goat who had imprisoned me and was now trying to eat my jeans, I felt genuine fear. I froze, and could only yell anxiously, “Help! Tanya, help me, help me! I’m dying!”

Nanny continued to chew at my jeans. Tanya continued to unknot her chain.

“Tanya, please help me! I’m dying!”

Tanya strode over and untangled me, pushing Nanny away from my pants.

“I nearly died, I nearly died!” Was all I could say.

Tanya laughed and patted Nanny while I ran away.

That night I regaled townsfolk at the local pub with the tale of my near-death. Well, not quite. We went to the local pub, and when there was a break in conversation I said to Tanya, “Wow, I can’t believe how I nearly died today,” and we both laughed. It would be like a bunny rabbit slaying a German Shepherd.

The next afternoon Tanya insisted on checking up on her friends. I was less enthusiastic, but was made to get back on the horse, so as to speak. We both took with us big bunches of fennel and parsley which were growing wild and unused in the garden.

I fed Billy, not wanting to approach Nanny. If it’s a thing for humans to assert their dominance and fearlessness over creatures in order to be safe, than I was screwed. Nanny scared me.

The goats loved the parsley more than the fennel. Once they’d eaten everything and Tanya had played with them both, they head-butted each other for a while, ritualistically. Just think, that could have been me.

I risked life and limb to capture some photos of the accursed beasts, which you can see below.

WARNING: Graphic Images.

2015-08-16 17.00.26

2015-08-16 17.10.09

2015-08-16 17.04.33

2015-08-16 17.04.29

2015-08-16 17.02.39





The Invisible Iran

For those of you who enjoyed my last article, I had a friend share the below link which I am now adding on as a tardy appendix.

They say a picture can speak a thousand words, and here you’ll find captured a much edgier and alternative side to Iran than what is typically presented in mainstream media, or conceived through the presiding single story or stereotype.

We were fortunate to experience this “side” of Iran, especially in our last few days.


The danger of the single story

“So that is how to create a single story. Show a people as one thing – as only one thing – over and over again, and that is what they become.”

I recently watched a TED talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie called The danger of the single story. If you haven’t already watched it, I would highly recommend doing so. In a voice rich with both strength and humour, Chimamanda shares how she found her authentic cultural voice, and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

This video reminded me of one of the reasons why I recently chose to travel to Iran. It started with a friend and a crazy plan to backpack from Africa through to China. But what allowed it to happen was something entirely different. As the list of countries got predictably smaller, and we settled on a modest four, one of them remained persistently challenging to most people when they inquired about my route: Iran.

I had for some time been aware of the divide between reality and what gets presented via the news and other forms of mainstream media. And it’s not just the news: it’s the collective idea of something; what I now choose to call the single story of a thing. For Iran, I had never heard of any good or positive association with it. In fact, I’d never met anyone who had been there or had anything real  or first-hand to say about it. All of my information was second-hand, and largely based on a collective societal idea: Iran = Iraq = Middle East = terrorism = war = danger.

I started to do research and collect my own information from a variety of sources. I researched statistics, articles, blog posts from travellers (include single female travellers) and finally, I discovered people in my life who had in fact travelled there themselves or had relatives who had gone. The results were consistent and positive: Iran is a relatively safe and friendly place which is often misunderstood and misrepresented through mainstream media. People I knew who had gone there all spoke highly of their experience. And yet this was at alarming odds with the single story I and many others had come to know.

Here in Australia, we get told a very basic single story about Middle Eastern countries. The single story is that they are dangerous and a threat to civilised, peace-loving nations (i.e., ‘The West’). They are different to us. Their religion is violent. They are terrorists.

Because of the single story we have been told about The Middle East and all countries in it, those who knew me were naturally concerned. I would get raped. I would get stoned. I would get beheaded. Etc, etc, etc.

People thought it would be like this:


Actually, it was more like this:

friends in iran

I didn’t get stoned. I didn’t get raped. And I obviously didn’t get beheaded.

I did get photographed a lot. Consensually. By locals who were so excited and gratified to have a westerner in their city that they wanted to document the experience to remember forever. I did have people ask if I would hold their baby whilst posing for a photo. And people who wanted to pay for my meal, my bus fare and have me come to their family home to eat dinner with them.

I had people tell me that I look like Nicole Kidman, who they adore. People would politely introduce themselves to me on the train, bus, streets and restaurants and ask where I am from and whether they could assist me in any way. People gave me sweets on public transport. I got preferential treatment at airports. People I stayed with told me I was now a part of their family and would always have a home with them should I choose to return.

Iran is filled with normal people like you and me doing normal, every day things. Surprisingly, they are the plastic surgery capital of the world. Every day, you will see both men and women with protective plaster over their nose jobs and chin jobs.

Iran also is the seventh largest consumer of cosmetics  out of approximately 196 countries in the world. A family we stayed with owned five franchise makeup stores, and were generous enough to give me and my friend gift bags with free stuff. Thanks for the blue nail polish, assorted facial cremes, coloured lip gloss and sample perfumes Ali!

In the prestigious 2015 World Countries Awards, Iran won the following:

  • Best Country in the World: Iran
    • Most Beautiful Capital City In The World: Tehran
    • Best Food in the World: Iranian food
    • Nicest People on Earth: Iranian people
    • Smartest people on the Planet: Iranian people
    • Most Handsome Men in the World: Iranian men
    • Most Beautiful Women In The World: Iranian women
    • Most Humble Human Being on the Planet: The Iranians

Another thing which surprised me was Persian women. They are feisty. And beautiful. And decidedly not repressed. At least, not in the way that we think. They are repressed by their government, just like everyone else. But not by the men. The men, I found, were paternal, gentle, responsible and endlessly yielding towards the women. And generally (all of this, of course, is general) very respectful. In instances where men addressed themselves to Jesse (my male friend) and not to me, it was out of respect to both of us. If I chose to enter into the conversation, I could do so at any point and be welcome.

Maybe by this point you’re feeling a little skeptical, because the single story you’ve come to believe about Iran doesn’t marry up with what you’re reading here.

This stands to reason, and goes a long way to reiterating the nature of the single story. The single story is one view point; one very coarse and overly simplistic way of looking at a person or thing; a thing that has untold and complex layers that otherwise lie rotting for want of further exploration and understanding.

There are 77 million people in Iran. 77 million. A month ago, a immigrant man of Iranian descent committed an act of terrorism in Australia. One man. That man represents 0.0000012987 of the Iranian population. And yet he and his actions are what many people will use to base their judgements of Iran and all Iranians by. All Iranians are terrorists. All of them are dangerous. Let’s just kill all of them.

Well, if all Iranians are dangerous terrorist (that’s 77 million people) how is it that there is still anyone left alive on this planet at all?

“The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, it is that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Stereotypes. Not always untrue, but incomplete. Australians love the beach. Well, a fair portion of us do, but the sun-drenched, perfectly-formed surfers amongst us are the decided minority. Most of us are content being pale and flabby office-dwellers, sometimes proclaiming, “I love the beach,” and maybe visiting it once or twice a year. The stereotype of bronzed Australians looking like Elle McPherson or the male equivalent is really only applicable to Elle McPherson and the male equivalent.

I once had an American friend tell me that she would never visit Australia, because it was simply Too Dangerous. Her biggest fear were the cassowaries. Cassowaries? I was 25 and had never even heard of a cassowary! She had to explain to me what they were. I pointed out to her that I had lived in Australia my whole life, as had my family and friends, and not only had we not been mauled by cassowaries, but we we were all still alive and well! But she was adamant in her beliefs, fuelled by a handful of second-hand anecdotes. She would never visit Australia. It was simply Too Dangerous.

And yet, her reasons were not entirely without basis. Cassowaries have been known to attack and injure humans. The only recorded human death by cassowary, however, was in 1926. A single story had been formed in my friend’s mind, although not one without basis. She was basing her views on a stereotype, which is of course a story that is incomplete.

“The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasises how we are different instead of similar.”

We were hosted by a lovely young couple at our last couch surfing place in Iran. They were so normal it was stupid. They had a modern upmarket apartment with all the mod cons. The wife was a rebellious artist and volunteer social worker. The husband was cheeky and charming and worked at his Dad’s business. Both of them were super smart. They hosted couch surfers whenever possible and loved meeting foreigners. They smoked weed most days and had friends over. They hung out in hip cafes and discussed their government. The women pushed the boundaries by wearing their hijab as loosely as possible in public without getting arrested, and the dudes supported it. They talked about alcohol, partying and all of the things that weren’t available to them yet they longed to have. You get the picture.

On our last night we hosted a small dinner party at their house and made Australian food for everyone – pumpkin soup, vegetarian spag bol (appropriated from the Italians, I know) and pavlova with fresh fruit. There were probably a dozen or so of their friends who dropped over during the course of the night. Most of them bought sweets or chocolates or something edible to contribute. There was a lot of weed smoking and heavy political discussions.

Everyone was well-dressed. In fact, Jesse and I regularly looked like complete dags around the Turks and Iranians. At one point, a young guy started a conversation about racism. It went like this: a friend of his had told him that apparently, in South Africa, racism is rampant! That people have been known to shoot black people based on the colour of their skin! That, in fact, black people have in the past been separated from the whites! Can you imagine something so appalling, so ignorant?!

Jesse and I were silent, not knowing how to proceed.

The man telling the story continued, and now had tears in his eyes. He was eloquent in his distress. How could people be so ignorant? How could they be so blind, so cruel? His friends nodded along seriously. It was clear that this was a kind of ignorance and racism they had no familiar footing with.

It was my host, fortunately, who pointed out to him that Iranians are also often at the receiving end of racism. The man was skeptical. Why? Why on earth would people hold such archaic views about Persians? They are the oldest culture in the world! They aren’t black! They are evolved, educated, refined. Everyone there (referring to his friends) had a bachelor, Masters or Ph.Ds in their chosen fields and were respected professionals! Excluding their conservative religious government (who everyone knows is not representative of the people), what could anyone possibly object to?

It was tough breaking it to this guy. It was tough telling him just how he and his great culture are perceived in many Western cultures. Not because it isn’t true, but because it is a stereotype; an incomplete story. This incomplete story that time and time again morphs into a single story. The single story of Iran and Iranians. Of their love of war and terror, their fundamentalist values and their cruel, brutal treatment of dissenters. Their use of capital punishment. The way that women are forced to cover up in public. How they are violent and distinctly unevolved. How they are blinded by Islam and seek to enforce it upon the rest of the world.

He was shocked. None of this was representative of him or his friends, or the Persia he knew. It didn’t take into account him, and the compassion he had for the victims of racism in South Africa, or the chocolates he’d brought to share or his love of refined yet open conversation. It was not his story. And to be lumped into such an crass, brutish category which was clearly offensive to him. And I’d hazard a guess that it would be offensive to the majority of Iranians, as well as .

“…when we reject the single story, when we realise there was never a single story about a single place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

I believe the key to cultivating a more balanced view of people and things is curiosity. And curiosity is aroused when we use our own gifts of critical thinking and start to question the validity of certain overarching beliefs or popular view points.

This isn’t a post about defending the actions of certain individuals, groups or religions. I am as saddened and frightened as the next person about the unfolding acts of terrorism in our world. What this post is about is recognising when there is a single story about a person or place, and then asking yourself whether or not you believe it to be conclusive, or could there possibly be more to it. More that you aren’t being fed or more than is commonly being discussed by your peers.

When we reject the single story and refuse to simplify an entire race or country or religion (or bird species), we open ourselves up to the possibility that there could be more. That is when growth and understanding is allowed to happen. And maybe empathy. And then we can start humanising people by not lumping them into pointless, one-dimensional categories. And when we humanise people, we start to understand that we have far more in common than what separates us. But most importantly, we give ourselves the gift of understanding that the world is actually a better and more diverse place than what we ever imagined. Sullied by a dangerous few, certainly. But not sullied by dangerous millions or billions.

Why am I blogging about this?

I feel compelled to share my first-hand experience of a country and its peoples (albeit one of many) which is currently the object of fear and in some cases misunderstanding by Westerners. This too is my first-hand experience. This is not an apologist blog or a attempt to rationalise extremist behaviour; rather, it is offering something which I believe is unique, unexpected and much-needed in the current presiding dialogue and view-point of Iran, and by extension other Middle Eastern countries. It is offering a different view-point, and a different set of stories from those you are probably most familiar with.

If nothing else, it is an attempt to tell more stories, and to be open to different and more diverse stories. I love this quote especially: “…when we reject the single story, when we realise there was never a single story about a single place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

For me, seeing that just one place, Iran, was not the frightening land of nightmares that many believe it to be, was a step towards regaining a kind of paradise within myself; it was the first step on a road filled with not one, but trillions of colourful, diverse and never-ending stories of life and humanity. It was a reaffirming experience: one which, from the beginning, said to me: “Hey. You have more in common with these people than anything you think is dividing you.”

And I truly believe it to be so.

Some Reflections in Persia

When we first visited Ferdswi Café, and saw it was actually open, I blinked away a few tears of relief. I saw the hipster young staff with their converse sneakers, and smelled the aroma of real espresso, and something in my chest expanded and smiled. It was the oasis of Western culture and familiarity I had been craving. It doesn’t matter that they use UHT milk that gives me diarrhoea with a consistent time lapse of four hours, or that the staff are polite to the point of subservient to us. It doesn’t matter that I feel customers and staff alike intensely scanning my face for longer than is polite whenever I’m here. None of that matters. The point is they play The Supremes and REM and Colin Hay and Pink Floyd and Elvis. I know the names of the beverages, because the menu is written in English and Farsi. This café could be in Brisbane or Seattle, or yes, here in Shiraz.

It would be easy to take the difficult aspects of Iran into this café with me: the exhaustion of these last few weeks, the sparse desert-mountain terrain surrounding Shiraz, or the way some locals’ eyes flicker to my purse as they charge outrageous tourist prices, but that’s not what this place is about. This place is about the aqua tiles that climb halfway up the walls and provide an aura of calm, with the colourful fishes and flowers and oriental faces painted on them, looking cartoonish and comical. It’s about the old records lined up on a shelf from biggest to smallest above the front door, and the way they have hand-painted the large hanging globe lights suspended high above us in bright colours.

It’s also about the raised workstation that I can’t see into, and the mysterious smells that come from it. I can see jars of nameless teas lined up along the high bench, which acts as barrier between us the kitchen. I want to know where the music is coming from (who put together the playlist?), and what sneakers the cook is wearing. Now that I think of it, I want to merge with the solid Persian man with the hippie hairstyle leaning languidly on the front counter. I want to know him, and understand what he is about and why he exists. If I could become him, maybe just for a few seconds, how differently I might see the world, and what a shift in feeling it would be. I want him to see me, to feel me, to look at me and know the entirety of me, and in his expression see reflected the thought: I see you. And I understand. Instead, he brings us our latte and French coffee, and there is a tension, a straining on his part to get it right, to anticipate us and yet to not be less than us.

 I need to understand who painted the half-finished aquamarine beams high above our heads; to picture their whole history, and immediately understand the heart and soul of this place; how and why it breathes, how people come to be here and what they feel and, by extension, what they want from me. Could it be that in this place of Western celebration that someone like me, a Westerner, is some sort of ideal, some sort of standard by which to measure their success? They are attentive, grateful towards us, and full of ways to improve our experience. And I want to tell them – don’t. Don’t be like this. You are amazing. What you have is enough, and you are enough. You are more than enough. I am not your judge. We are not the kind people you need to impress. You, and your sneakers and hipster glasses and that trendy vest – the person who decided to put “I want to know what love is” on the play list – are the true stars here, my heroes. You have saved my life, and will never know what this – what you – mean to me. Thank you. Thank you for doing this.

Inside, there is an icy hand gently stroking my stomach, pressing down finger by finger, and now strengthening its grip and starting to twist. The coldness begins to vibrate and then suddenly, like a dam bursting, it flows like a powerful river through my whole body, cascading waterfall-like over my thoughts, pouring cold water over everything. Now something heavy is lowering slowly yet firmly on my chest, and my breath catches just short of an audible gasp, because suddenly I am awash with a nameless fear, an existential terror, at being stripped bare and naked in a big, cold world: a white woman with a pink headscarf and little else in Iran, and then…I don’t know what, or where, or how, or why. At the same time, a familiar jazz track is playing and cheerful pansies are looking back at me from their boxed rows along the glass shop front. Maybe everything will be OK after this, in the nameless place where I will take off my headscarf and conduct the next phase of my life because, thank God, there are pansies and familiar jazz tracks here, and a young guy whose face lights up every time we tell him the coffee is great, as though it really means something to him.

Today they played Johnny and June Cash, and in the middle of singing along to Jackson someone – I don’t know who – skipped the track, and now it is Bob Marley, and Jesse reminds me that I am committing a crime right now, at this very moment: I am a woman in Iran, dancing in public (with my feet and hands and head and shoulders whilst seated, but still). I danced harder, and then promised I would have a blog post by 6pm. He held out his hand and, mid shake, I pull away, quickly spit in my palm, and force it back into his hand. Oh, I will pay for that one. I will pay. Instead, I go into the bathroom and notice that there are stains on my headscarf, and then imagine how happy I will be to liberate my hair in a week’s time, and how it will bounce and flow and animate its way in the world around it, cheekily speaking its own language, uninhibited by foreign laws.

Yesterday from a crowded and cheap fast-food restaurant near our hostel, we sat and watched a flock of homing pigeons flying overhead in the afternoon sky. They wheeled in a tight circle, dark silhouettes against fresh blue space, and disappeared behind a building, only to appear again, and again, again. 30, 40, 100 times, never detouring from their tiny flight path. Had no one told them they were free, that they needn’t return home to their owner? How easily one might have broken free, and flown alone, poignantly into the distant sky, his back towards the others. And maybe they would have seen the idea, and followed. But no, they have been trained well. 120, 130, 140 times. Again and again, going around in circles, an invisible wall between them and the rest of the sky. How big and impossible it must have seemed to them, how very much beyond their ken. That they might take up more than a tiny wheel of space and truly spread their wings in any direction they choose – well, maybe it is better they do not know of it, of the bigness and possibility, which itself can be a burden.

The small sausage pizza I ordered was really vegetarian pizza with some pale pink deli meat tucked under the layers of cheese. The large bottle of non-alcoholic beer was really a pineapple-flavoured fizzy drink, and the cheap plastic cups they gave us bent and caved in with the slightest pressure. Later, in our room, we alternated between this drink and the thermos of black tea the hostel owner had presented to Jesse earlier in the evening, which we sip out of ceramic blue and white mugs with lumps of white sugar tossed in.

We watch Kramer vs Kramer, and afterwards I wax lyrical about Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman, and posit that there is no bad movie with either of them in it, but that’s not even it: if I were to really articulate my meaning, I would say they are my heroes, geniuses, and that I am at once envious of them, and also grateful that things are exactly as they are. What a thing it must be to see the world through their eyes, and have the talent to inhabit the skin of any person or object or situation at will, with such apparent ease and grace. Only five days ago we had watched Meryl Streep in Out of Africa, and every now and then, for no reason, I will say to Jesse, in my own version of a an old woman with a Danish accent, I had a farm in Africa. I had a farm in Africa…

And even as I speak, it I am reminded of my Nana, and her love of the book (the real-life story and literary masterpiece of Danish author Karen Blixen) and of Africa. It was she, my Nana, who first gave me the book maybe ten years ago, which I never read until now, on this trip, in Iran. What a relief and thing of beauty I found it to be. And all the while, through the movie, amidst my love of Meryl Streep and the snatches of time reading the book on buses and trains, I am seeing my Nana, and her sarong and green-olive sun-hat, on the beach, and feeling the strength and warmth of her hands. She went to Zimbabwe and loved it, never stopped talking about it. And now, maybe twenty-five years after that, I am in Iran, carrying this book around, thinking of my Nana and saying over and over again in bad Danish accent, I had a farm in Africa, I had a farm in Africa…

 We leave tomorrow night, and will spend 24 hours on a train from Shiraz to Mashard. In four days’ time from then, we fly to New Delhi, and then to Kathmandu. The time here has been full of plans for Pokhara, Nepal, and talk of the small, rural property I would like to hire for a month, overlooking a lake and rice paddy fields and against a backdrop of the Himalayas. Will I hire a scooter or a bicycle to make the three-kilometre journey into town for daily yoga? If I have drinks in town with friends, is it easy to navigate my way home in the darkness? The owner hasn’t replied to my message with all of its questions, and in the silence there are dozens of exciting possibilities, which I know will soon be whittled down to a handful of cold, hard facts. So in the meantime, I continue to imagine and discuss and plan, blissfully unaware yet of the stark realities.

We have been in Ferdswi Café for five hours today. The staff know how much I enjoy listening to Johnny Cash, and keep replaying his tracks. The large hanging globe lights are on now, and it is nice to see the precise shade of light they give out underneath their hand-painted green exterior. In an hour’s time, when the dinner menu starts, we will order some vegetarian pasta, drink some more water (we have been slack this week) and then make our way back to our hostel, amidst the traffic and bazaars and hawkers and crowds of women in black chadors and men in tight jeans. Of what rubbish we will discuss then, I know not. But it is now 5:24pm, and I believe I will deliver my blog post on time – early, in fact. The slimy, unexpected spittle squashed between our palms must have worked to make it so.

I had a farm in Africa. I had a farm in Africa….


Iran Day One

We arrived at the Tehran train station around 4:30-5:00am on Saturday 1 November 2014. We’d had a reasonable amount of sleep and had given ourselves plenty of time on the train to wash, change into clean clothes and just generally feel fresh and ready for the next part of our adventure.

It was dark outside when we arrived, and the train station didn’t seem very big (we later discovered we were in a little offshoot of the main central station, which is quite big and probably would have had WiFi). We had planned to spend our first few nights in Iran couch surfing as it seemed like the best way to ease ourselves into the culture. However, with no WiFi access on the train and none at the station, we didn’t know whether our requests had been accepted and what arrangements were potentially in place. We decided to wing it and hail a taxi and try to communicate that we would like to be taken to a mid-range hotel.

The taxi driver didn’t speak English, but we loaded our stuff into the car anyway and as we were driving out, he stopped at the security gate and checked in with a man who did speak English. The man confirmed with us that we had no prior booking and would like to be taken to a mid-range hotel that costs around 15 euros per night. As is the custom in Iran, I sat in the back of the taxi and Jesse sat in the front seat.

We drove for about 20 minutes before the driver stopped at a very nice-looking hotel. The drive there was another story altogether: suffice it to say that speed limit signs and road lines are completely pointless in Iran.

When we parked, the driver indicated for us to stay in the car while he went in and talked to the hotel staff. After a few minutes, he came out and indicated for Jesse to come in, but for me to stay in the car. He reiterated this point by locking me in the car using a child-proof safety lock system! I found it pretty funny, but was also wary enough to locate where to unlock it from inside the car, just in case the taxi driver wasn’t the big fatherly teddy bear I had him pinned as.

They came out a short while later, and we drove off. Jesse explained that the place was too expensive, more like 60 euro per night. The thing with money and foreigners in Iran is this: the cash you bring in is the only money you have access to while you’re there. Credit cards are not accepted at all in Iran, and ATMs are only available to locals, not tourists. You need to bring in everything necessary in cold, hard cash and be careful about what you spend. Inflation is enormous in Iran and can change on a daily basis. We exchanged US $500 on the train, and got roughly 14 million Iranian Rials in return. Incidentally, the Lonely Planet guide we were referring to was enormously outdated (we later found out), and so that amount of money (which we thought would be more than adequate for 21 days) turned out to be not feasible. The cab ride alone cost us 500 000 rials. Fortunately, I had 500 euros that I hadn’t changed and Jesse had some more US dollars, so we should be fine. But back to the story….

After ten minutes, we arrived at another hotel. Again, the driver went in by himself to speak to the staff and indicated that we should stay in the car. Then he came out again and beckoned for Jesse to join him, and locked me in the car again. After five minutes, Jesse came out and got my passport and disappeared again. I know I shouldn’t have, but I kind of enjoyed having everything sorted out without my input. It gave me time to dream about wearing my play shorts. That’s probably the nice way of looking at it.

Things eventually got sorted out, and the men came out to grab all the luggage, and me, from the car. The hotel was quite nice, but I later found out a lot more expensive than our requested 15 euros. It was actually 45 euros, which equalled about 1.5 million rials. So in our first hour, we spent 2 million of our 14 million rials. Yikes!

It was great to have our own space and for me to be able to take off the many layers I was required to wear, and ditch my headscarf (which is generally quite snug, but a relief not to have to wear, nonetheless). By then it was about 6-6:30am. We decided to nap for a few hours, and ended up rising around 11-12pm. We had some leftover Iranian Pepsi and biscuits from the train, so we snacked a little. Eventually (not that we wanted to because we were so tired) we got up and went outside to explore and get something to eat. We seemed to be a less salubrious, quite industrial part of town. The traffic was very busy, and we played Russian roulette with our lives crossing the road. Basically, pedestrian crossings are entirely ornamental, and people (motorbikes, cars) just drive through at high-speed anyone. It is the combined responsibility of the pedestrian and driver to ensure there is no crash. I shat myself the first time I had to cross a busy intersection, but after a while there seemed to be a common sense/flow about it. Basically, everyone does whatever they need to do to ensure someone isn’t killed.

There weren’t a lot of restaurants on this side of town, and everything was written in Farsi, so we couldn’t understand anything or read menus. Eventually, we passed a very touristy pizza/fast food place. This is where we discovered how grossly misinformed we had been about the currency. We managed to order a pizza and burger, and got told it would cost us 20000 tomans. Basically, one toman is equal to ten rials. So what we were prepared to pay for in rials, we discovered was actually ten times more expensive – the meal would cost us 200,000 rials.

At first we thought we were being grossly ripped off, and hung back from paying whilst we tried to learn the Farsi phrase for “lower” and “I think it’s too expensive.” Eventually, we paid, and later found out it was correct. Doh!

We went home after that, and I napped for another few hours and woke up to loud drumming outside around 7pm. Jesse had been doing stuff on his computer. At 8pm, I was wide awake and Jesse then turned in. I got dressed up and went down into the hotel lobby cafe for a disgusting 3 in 1 Nescafe and to catch up on some emails. I also asked the lovely Persian lady on the front desk where I could buy some appropriate clothing, because I only had one outfit. She was so, so beautiful. She wrote down in English and Farsi a place for me to go, and how much it would cost me in taxi fare. She then offered to come with me and help me shop! I was so touched, and really excited. However, we were checking out the next morning and had loose couch surfing arrangements with our next host, and I felt hesitant to lock something in. I thanked her very much though, and was genuinely touched. Persian women are outwardly beautiful, and inwardly beautiful.

After that it was bed time – sweet, sweet bed time.











From Turkey to Iran

We began our three-day journey to Tehran from Turkey on Wednesday 29 October 2014. There were two train legs and a ferry component. At 12:30pm, we got a shuttle bus from The Pilot hotel in Cappadocia to the train station, about a one-hour drive. The train was due to depart at 5:30pm, and we got there around 2pm. The staff spoke very limited English, but we were able to purchase our train tickets OK. They cost us about $50AUD each.

We went out and got some food and a coffee in town to kill some time. I think the staff at the café assumed we were German, because they kept saying Auf Weidersehn to us. Jesse ordered Kofte Meatballs and I ordered Nescafe. I didn’t realise that they had given me the 3-in-1 sachet Nescafe (coffee, milk, sugar) until I added my own sugar and then tasted how sickly sweet it was. I finished it anyway, much to Jesse’s disgust. The drink I first looked down my nose at as become a secret love, and about as healthy as drinking a cup of tooth decay.

We got back to the train station around 4:45pm. There were a lot of people, and I wasn’t sure if they were Iranians or Turks, but later found out most of them were Iranians. There were a small handful of German backpackers also. There was a very diverse range of people – families, elderly couples, single men – and everyone seemed cheerful and friendly enough. From what I could see there were a lot of families, and some pretty cute kids running around too. True story: the coolest, most upbeat and friendly guy on this trip was a Downs Syndrome Iranian boy. He was about seventeen, and full of confidence and life. He made a point of talking to everyone over the course of the three days, danced for us all whilst we were aboard the ferry, and was just generally awesome. But I digress.

Whilst waiting for the train, I took out a book and put my glasses on. Prior to this, Jesse and I had been feeling a bit invisible. There were heaps of people around us, and lots of conversation and stuff happening, and we were completely alienated because of the language barrier, and also a bit of shyness. Most people glanced at us once or twice and then ignored us. I think that English as a second language is less common further away from capital cities.

For some reason, once I put my glasses on, people started paying attention to us. The whole energy changed and it’s like we were given some respect and weight. It’s hard to explain how this occurred, but suddenly people were looking our way, pointing, whispering, and we both stood a little taller from the sheer relief of not being completely invisible. We felt like celebrities. Little children came up to us and said hello. It was as though we were being viewed in a new light – maybe she is a doctor, a physicist, or a scholar. Little did they know I usually can’t even remember my own street address and postcode. We laughed, but I also decided that whilst in transit I would wear my glasses often. They seemed to be the only bargaining chip we had, apart from the fact that we were clueless tourists.

Something else I should explain about Turkish and, I can now confirm, Iranian public transport: it is very random. It is not uncommon to have unscheduled stops, irregular or no toilet breaks, and things occurring which nobody has any idea about. And for the majority of the time, no one really questions it. The onus is on finding out the information for yourself, and then it gets spread via word of mouth. If you don’t speak the language, you remain clueless and just have to wait and see what unfolds. There is no public, formal announcement. You can’t expect everything to work, or even for the amenities to be clean. I always travel with my own tissues/toilet paper, as the majority of public amenities offer neither. On the flip side, people seem to be blessed with the ability to roll with things and make the best of whatever situation they are faced with.

Our first train ride on the Trans Asia Express was for about 20 hours, and thankfully was an overall pleasant experience. When we first got into our compartment, the two of us, plus our backpacks and other gear, completely filled it. It was set up with two opposing couches that could fit four people facing opposite each other, and then the couches folded out into bunks. There were four bunk beds per compartment, but it was very cramped.

We had different information about how crowded it would be, and were banking on the fact that two young Western travel companions with a shit load of luggage would not be an appealing prospect to most locals. Already, there seemed to be a village/community feel amongst the passengers which unfortunately we didn’t exude. I was hoping prospective compartment-mates would decline sharing with us due to the lack of camaraderie. I couldn’t imagine 20 hours of silence or forced polite conversation with strangers when all I wanted to do was change into my play shorts and sleep.

I literally prayed to God that we would have the compartment to ourselves. Things were looking good, until the last minute, when an elderly Iranian couple was led into our compartment by the conductor. I am still quite ashamed about my reaction now. I was devastated, and showed it. The elderly woman was so sweet and smiling and laughing (even though she couldn’t have been relishing the prospect of spending he next 20 hours with us) and we both looked completely shell-shocked. We had presence enough to move what we could of our luggage out of the way, by putting the backpacks above us on a bunk, but that was it. I sat there glaring out the window, refusing to attempt small talk and hoping that if I were surly enough they would try to find another compartment. Sad but true.

They weren’t keen either and could tell it was an uninviting prospect: room-mates they couldn’t communicate with, a fuck-tonne of luggage, our strange Western ways….in the end, the man found another compartment and they bid us a civilised goodbye. We were free! I was too relieved to feel really ashamed about my behaviour, but don’t worry – my Catholic guilt sank in later. But it was for the best. We would have felt constrained and so would they.

Now that we had our own compartment, we sealed the deal by spreading all of our gear out. The top bunks held our luggage. The windows were tinted and also had curtains, so I was able to change into my beloved play shorts and singlet top. Anytime I left the compartment, I changed into jeans and long-sleeved top.

We actually had a really nice time. In our bottom bunk beds, we faced the window and could watch the Turkish countryside rolling by from the comfort of our beds. It was like watching a real-life movie. In some parts, the countryside was a little like what I imagine Switzerland to be like: rolling green mountains, clear brooks and streams, some snow-capped peaks. Meanwhile, the temperature inside was very hot at a minimum of 23 degrees in an enclosed space. Fortunately we were able to open the window a bit and both wear play-shorts – something that wouldn’t have been possible with other companions – so we ended up being fairly cool. We basically slept, read, watched movies on the laptops and chatted for 20 hours in our own space. It was like a really long sleep-over with random Iranians m mistaking your compartment for their own and taking you by surprise when you are having a moment with your stuffed bunny. It was fun.

The only kinda non-fun aspect to it was that I was sick. We had both been fighting off coughs and colds for the last week, and were probably both a little run-down. The night before we caught the train, I only got three hours’ sleep. I found that as we were packing to catch the shuttle bus, I started to feel a bit sinusy. By the time we were well into our train ride, my nose was like a faucet, my voice sounded like death and I was coughing like a smoker (I’m sure all the shisha had nothing to do with it). The positive side of this is that it made me sleepy, along with all the sinus medication I was taking, so I did sleep quite a bit. I had some emergency antibiotics in my first aid kit, but chose to let food be my medicine. So I ate cucumber, grapes, mandarins and drank heaps of water. No coffee, and did my best to cut down on sugar. Incidentally, I felt better by the next day.

The rest of the train ride was relatively uneventful, the only real down-side being the water closet (toilet). It smelled so bad, and I dry-reached every time I went into it. It was the traditional hole-in-the-floor style so things were very close to home. People had been very messy in using it, and the irony was that there was a toilet brush still in its plastic covering right next to it, untouched. Anyway, it’s all part of the experience.

We arrived at Van around 3:30pm the next day, and had to catch the ferry across the enormous lake. It took about five hours. The ferry was a sizeable passenger ferry, big enough to accommodate a few hundred people, but also not in the best shape. The light above where we were sitting was a hole in the roof with a wire hanging out. In the women’s WC there were only two toilets. One (the western toilet) didn’t have a light, toilet paper or a working flush, so it was out. The other was a traditional floor toilet, which was pretty muddy and ripe. It didn’t have toilet paper either, but it did have a working light. Yay!

The ferry ride was fairly uneventful – we watched a movie on Jesse’s laptop, I read my book, we got awesome sandwiches for roughly 4TL total. It was oily, toasted Turkish bread with cheese, salami and some sort of tomato sauce. After a day of not much eating, it really hit the spot. My biggest concern was now foraging enough napkins as possible to serve as both tissues and toilet paper. Fortunately, I had stolen a roll of toilet paper from our first AirBNB apartment, which at the time was kind of a joke, but now was nearly as indispensable as my passport and Buster, and, I was learning, equally rare.

I had just spread out across some empty seats and gotten really comfortable and sleepy (thanks, flu medication!) when we docked. Pissed off and happy at the same time, I joined Jesse in getting our shoes and coats on as quickly as possible so we could grab our gear and hopefully get a good train compartment on the second train. We stood up, teetering under our heavy packs, and began to move out of the crowded room.

Now, this is a shout-out to Iranian and Turkish men. Bless them, they have a genuine concern for most people, and take on responsibility for situations and things very naturally. They are very paternal. As we were moving, an elderly Iranian man indicated to me in broken English, “No train. Two. Cold.” After a bit more back-and-forth like that, we managed to establish that the train was not coming for a long time, and that if we waited outside we would be cold. So we sat back down. I was learning to trust the locals, who, despite the lack of clear guidance and communication, always seemed to know what was going on. Most of them were still in their seats. A few younger backpackers had left, but came back after ten minutes or so. So we spent another hour sitting in the ferry.

After that, there was some sort of signal that we could leave. So we left, and then waited in the crowded train station waiting room. It was probably around 10pm by this point. There was no train, so we just sat and read. I finished To The Lighthouse. Then after maybe an hour, the train arrived. Jesse and I were up with our bags on so quickly. We were determined to get our own compartment for the next leg of the trip, or at least not be the last to board.

But no. As soon as the cheers died down (everyone was so happy when the train arrived) we began to understand that we all had to get our tickets stamped and verified and provided passports etc. There were two men doing this at the front desk. Mind you, they didn’t provide this service whilst we were all sitting on our asses for an hour; it only started once the actual train arrived. So, fast-forward another half an hour and all the men rushing the counter – we had our tickets verified and could go.

This time, despite our determination, we didn’t get a compartment to ourselves. We had prepared ourselves for this however, and I wasn’t a complete bitch to our new companions.

The compartments (now on an Iranian train) were nicer and I think a little more spacious. They had little fold-back tables between seats and complimentary thermoses of hot water for tea. We found our compartment, and dumped our stuff. Then, two Iranian men, maybe in their late 30s, came in. They didn’t look thrilled to see us either, but both were very polite (from what we could tell). It was impossible for all of us to sit comfortably with all of Jesse and my luggage, so we dumped it all on one of the upper bunks, and indicated to the men that they could have the two bottom bunks, and we would share the remaining upper bunk. Nothing promotes closeness like spooning on a single bunk bed in an overheated room for 24 hours.

During this time, a conductor visited and asked us if we wanted dinner. Even though I wasn’t really hungry, I said yes and so did Jesse. The men declined. We were given massive plates of white rice piled high over what appeared to be half a chicken each. Also, some yogurt, biscuits, tea and a soft drink each. It was a very heavy meal to take in at any time, let alone roughly at 12am, so I ate a bit of rice and my tub of yogurt. The Iranian had left the carriage and we used this time to arrange ourselves.

In the process of doing this, we discovered that with some tactical manoeuvring and ingenious usage of space, we could actually stow our luggage in the overhead rack and Jesse and I could have a top bunk each. It was a small yet important victory.

I now hadn’t showered in god knows how many days, and was still in the same clothes I’d started out in: jeans, a thermal singlet, a long-sleeved thermal shirt, and a light, long-sleeved top over the two. Also a very snug, sleeveless puffer jacket. Many of these items will be burned when I conclude my travels.

The temperature in the room was stiflingly hot, even with the compartment door open. There was a heat vent next to the window, and it was burning. Grade eight science lessons now came to mind – hot air rises. Great, we had the top bunks. The two Iranian men, who barely had any luggage, didn’t seem to be bothered. They were both dressed in nice jeans and sweaters. I was wondering how, in this very confined space with two strange (yet seemingly nice) men I could possibly change into my play-shorts and singlet top and be comfortable for the next 24 hours without breaking some sort of law or moral code.

I indicated to one of the men, who had a very nice yet serious, almost brotherly attitude, that it was very hot. He nodded, looking responsible, and opened the top window. It opened to its capacity, maybe two inches. I thanked him.

We all made our beds, settled in and turned off the lights. I had made the decision that, Iranian train or no Iranian train; strange Muslim men or no strange Muslim men that I was getting into my play-shorts and singlet top. It was simply too hot to stay in jeans and thermals. It was also awkward to go digging around in our massive backpacks for more suitable clothing, as they were tightly wedged in the luggage compartment and the clothes packed in tightly. We had to work with what we had, and my play-shorts were in my backpack.

Now that the lights were off (although it wasn’t all that dark) I sat up in my bunk bed and took off my two top layers so I was in my sleeveless black thermal singlet. This was OK. Then, stretched out on my bunk with a single sheet covering me, I started to take of my skinny leg jeans, which was a bit of a mission. Just as they were off and I was in my undies, there was a sharp rap and the compartment door slid open. Two Iranian conductors were asking for our passports. Sweet Jesus. Fortunately, mine was next to my head; so I tried to look nonchalant as I passed it down to them from my bunk, taking care that the sheet should never unravel and reveal my tropical island-themed Bonds to these men. But yeah. On an Iranian train, unable to speak the language and surrounded by four Iranian men, wearing nothing but a singlet top and Bonds with only a very thin sheet to protect my modesty. Talk about feeling vulnerable. On a positive note, I have found Iranians to be very friendly, polite and respectful, and if there had been an accidental slip, I believe they would have been kind enough to “not notice.”

After that, we all drifted off to sleep. Both of the Iranian men slept with one arm covering their eyes. I thought maybe this was out of respect to me (the man on the bottom bunk bed diagonal me had a full view of me), until Jesse pointed out it could also be to block out the light. Maybe a little for column A and a little from column B. No idea what time it was by that stage. Interestingly, I felt much safer on this train and with these companions than if I had been in the same situation in say Australian or America.

The herding wasn’t over. We got woken up a few hours later at the Iranian border. We had to disembark the train, walk into a building and get our Visas approved. Again, we didn’t really know what was happening. We knew we were at the border crossing and to have out passports ready, but that was it.

By the time I ditched my play-shorts and changed into “proper” clothes, including a headscarf, we were amongst the last to disembark. When we got on the platform, which was dark, we found it to be very cold. I was prepared and had worn my jacket, but Jesse was in a t-shirt. Why….

Everything was empty and silent, and there were steams of breath issuing from our mouths. We followed some women in front of us, and after a few hundred metres eventually came to the building (it was more like a single room) where everyone from our train was packed in. All the familiar faces! We joined a queue and got our passports stamped. The young Iranian guy at the counter was quite friendly. He asked me for my Turkish visa, and I shook my head and said, tren (to indicate it’s back on the train). He shook his head, didn’t ask any more questions, and stamped my passport anyway.

After that, we played the waiting game again: we all sat down and waited maybe an hour until, by some invisible signal, we were told we could return to the train. When we got back on, we all tumbled into our respective bunks fully clothed and fell asleep. It was 4:30am.

We all slept, and then got woken up again some hours later. One of the men in our carriage tried to explain what was happening, but we didn’t get it. Then the conductor came in to speak to us. Somehow, it was conveyed that we needed to get off the train. We didn’t need our passports or luggage. We got off, and found that we were at a nice-looking platform and everyone milling around in a quite nice station room. Most of them had their luggage. It turned out that we had moved a total of 1km from our location last night where we got our visas approved.

By this point, I was feeling very tired and at the end of my rope. Jesse and I could see that some people had their luggage out and some didn’t, and we didn’t know what to do. There wasn’t anyone who seemed able to explain to us what was happening. The prospect of going back onto the train and packing all of our shit and lugging it out was not inviting. We didn’t know what to do, so I decided to go to the toilet.

On the Iranian train, they lock the water closets whenever the train isn’t in motion. Our train had been sitting in one spot for something like seven hours. I wasn’t busting, but the few attempts I had made to visit the WC on the train had been unsuccessful since we first boarded. I found one at this new station, and there were many women in it, obviously with the same idea. Of course, all of the toilets were gloried holes in the ground with mud and urine splash back around them and no toilet paper. I asked an elderly German backpacker if she spoke English, and she indicated she did. I asked her if she knew what was happening, and she said we had to get our luggage inspected. So customs. She told me to look for a conductor in a red jacket to talk to. I went outside, and couldn’t see Jesse anywhere. I didn’t know if he’d gone back to our carriage or to the bathroom or what. I could feel dozens of eyes on me, and knew that I must look lost and confused and young and western and naïve. I got teary out of frustration for the first time, as I felt so powerless. So I went back to the toilet, relieved myself and had a very brief (there was a queue) teary in private.

We ended up ascertaining that it was only the Iranians who needed to go through customs. So we were able to go back on the train and chill (or sweat, whatever). It was another two or so hours before we left, making it around 10:30am. We had been sitting in the same spot for about 8 hours.

The Iranians slept, but I decided to boot up the laptop, start my day and write a blog post (this). After an hour or so, a conductor let us know that we could go into the dining car for breakfast. From here, we got a much better view of the scenery. Close to the boarder, the scenery is very beautiful: sheer hills and rugged mountains dominate the landscape, and little brooks and streams and lakes can be seen running through them. I saw the biggest eagle I’ve ever seen floating in the valley between two mountains. We had some tea and flat bread and jam for breakfast, and decided to hang out in the dining car semi-permanently for the remainder of the trip. As we moved on, the scenery changed and became flatter, more non-descript and monotonous.

I took advantage of the now open WC to have a rough wash, clean my teeth, moisturise my face and change my clothes. I felt one thousand times better when I returned to the dining car.

They served lunch around 4pm – a mountain of long-grain white rice over meat sticks, with lemon, paprika (optional) and some kind of flat white bread that looked like bubble wrap. We also got a tub of yoghurt and a soft drink.

Jesse also had some welcome news – he’d gone into our compartment for something, and found that the two Iranian men had left at Tabriz. I was quite fond of them both, but pleased nonetheless. After lunch, we went back to our compartment and re-made the two bottom bunk beds and spread out. Oh yeah…. and got into my PLAY SHORTS!!!!

The rest of the trip (12 hours) was relatively uneventful: we read, played computer chess, talked shit, ate and read up about Iran on a Lonely Planet PDF. The only semi-highlight (which is really actually a low-light) is that I got my first grope (I was the gropee, not the groper). It happened like this: it was the middle of the night, and I needed to visit the WC. I got all dressed up and put my headscarf on. There were a couple of people wandering around and some compartment doors open. The WC I initially went to was locked. I walked down the other end of the carriage to see if the second one was open. A conductor, who we had been on reasonably friendly terms with (he exchanged some currency for us and I praised a picture of his toddler son from his mobile phone, much to his delight) directed me, and in the process thought it necessary to put his hand lightly on my derrière to emphasise the direction (forward) I needed to go. It was something he definitely would not have done had there been other people around. It was light and seemingly innocent enough for him to brush off if challenged, but it was also completely unnecessary, inappropriate and, more significantly, unwanted.

Jesse had set his alarm for 3:30am, and we rose early to dress, pack and get ready for our stop. We got into Tehran about 4:30am. The next instalment I will leave for another time.


Istanbul Part Two

Who run the world? Kurds.


Well, at least in this neighbourhood they do.

We are back near Taksim, and this time with a new couch surfing host, Chelsea. Chelsea is a 23 year old Canadian woman who has been living in Istanbul for over a year teaching English and doing freelance photography.

In the space of maybe two hours, Chelsea was able to fill us in on many points that had been plaguing our poor Western brains for the past week and a half.

She met us and our backpacks outside a local high school on Istiklal street on Tuesday night. She and some friends walked us back to her place and, surprise, surprise: it was only two streets away from our first air b ‘n’ b apartment. It probably doesn’t seem like a big deal, but in a place as huge as Istanbul, it was pretty funny.


We all had a good chuckle over breakfast, watching this little kid wave her mean-looking replica firearm around in the building opposite. Mum (behind) watches on proudly.

Chelsea took no pains to hide the fact that she lives in a dodgy Kurdish neighbourhood. In fact, she celebrated it, whilst also giving helpful, practical pointers on what we can expect behaviour-wise from our neighbours. Basically, they are harmless to us. If you see a child waving a gun around, don’t be alarmed: it’s a very convincing-looking replica (we were fortunate enough to see one the following morning). There are drug dealers loitering on our door step, but they won’t bother us because we’re Western, and because I have a man with me. The few times I was alone, the most they did was venture a clumsy, “Hello.”


Chelsea’s hood.

So basically, it’s a very colourful thirty-second walk through this neighbourhood from our doorstep to the main street.



Chelsea explained that the continued police presence in the area is due to it being a Kurdish neighbourhood, and the dots started to connect for Jesse and I in terms of the tear gas and riot police we saw around on our first few nights. Again, it’s very, very common in Turkey. Chelsea cheerfully suggested that lemon juice is helpful for taking away the sting of tear gas.


Near our old place, just a few streets away.

Even though our first place was only a few streets away, it seemed to be a much nicer neighbourhood; there were cafes, old Turkish men sitting for ours on tiny chairs on the footpath, and a lot of car traffic moving up and down the street.

This neighbourhood is like something from a Turkish-Dickens novel: old, dirty cobbled streets that twist unexpectedly and lead into dark alleyways; dirty children running around, and putting their hands out for money; old dogs and cats asleep next to the street; laundry hung like many hundreds of colourful banners overhead; dilapidated houses and the smell of trash and sewerage. And yes, Chelsea said the children carry knives. Cute.

Chelsea has been living there for a year and a half. She explained that her Kurdish neighbours don’t really bother her: their main beef is with the police. When the police decide to flex their muscles and direct their tear gas in the direction of the Kurdish neighbourhoods, the Kurds all hang out the windows and bang their pots and pans to antagonise the police. They also throw Molotov cocktails and whatever other concoctions they can muster. Again, the strange sounds of ten days ago begin to make sense.

IMG_0550IMG_0551Chelsea has a beautiful studio apartment that is completely incongruous with the sordid neighbourhood around it. She spent a lot of time cleaning and repainting it until it is as light, breezy and modern-looking as you could wish. With blonde-wooden flooring, white walls, a high ceiling, varnished bay windows and light, floaty curtains, it is a haven of both beauty and Western living in the midst of the sometimes oppressive Turkish culture.


This cat had a beautiful Turkish name beginning with “B” but we couldn’t remember it…so it was just easier to call her Beerburrum.

She shares the space with crazy ex-street cat (the name of which I cannot pronounce; we nick-named it Beerburrum), and (for the moment) her Canadian friend Brody. Jesse and I take up the futon. We felt immediately welcome, and Chelsea has us laughing basically every time she opens her mouth. The trashiest, most frustrated and base comments I have about this country can be uttered aloud to Chelsea, with the assurance of emphatic nodding and the declaration of, “Yes. Oh my god, yes.” A person without pretension, Chelsea escorted us and our backpacks home, gave us a key, told us “My house is your house and basically don’t be d!cks,” and then left us to it. A backpacker’s dream. The breakfast she hooked us up with the next morning was just as special.


Jesse-made porridge, with real coffee, milk, sugar lumps, apples and mandarin. It probably seems like a really small deal, but after the Nescafe nightmare that is Turkey – we loved it.

The street we live on is full of life. This afternoon, after maybe seven hours of solid walking (with one half hour break) I crashed for a nap around 6pm. And literally couldn’t sleep. There was so much activity on the street: children shouting, mothers shouting, fathers shouting, people talking, things (I don’t know what things) banging. Despite not being able to sleep, I found it quite calming, insomuch as it was very natural. It conjured to mind a picture of standard suburban Australia, and the silent, well-spaced apart blocks of land, with no children playing in the streets (lest they be injured or kidnapped) and no raised voices for any reason (lest the neighbours complain or think you’re an asshole) and no bustle or activity in the neighbourhood (because every family is self-sufficient).

Somehow, I prefer this for the moment, perhaps because it is a new experience, but also because of the realness of it all. One thing I have not seen in Turkey yet is people glued to their iphones, ipads, or television sets. It just doesn’t happen, mainly because many people are too poor to afford the technology, but also because it would detract from the ingrained culture of togetherness. There is a community feeling to the place; like on every street, no matter how lowly or dirty, people know each other, there is a tight community and people live – crossly, loudly, impatiently, angrily, happily, dishonestly, desperately – but they live their lives, with witness others doing the same.

It is a far cry from what I know in Australia. It is not orderly, regulated, well-maintained or polite. Brisbane City Council would shit itself looking at the sidewalk pavement on any one block in Istanbul, and I don’t get the feeling that anyone would be filing a lawsuit with the local council if they tripped on a loose brick. Some of the sights have been confronting. There are homeless mothers and babies outside shop windows ladened with gold jewellery; children walking up to you in restaurants and asking for your leftovers. There are homeless cats and dogs everywhere, and police with riot gear, guns and water cannons a few blocks from where we stay.

While Istanbul is possibly the home of the most well-dressed men in the world, there seems to be a nearly invisible female population, and the women that I have seen mostly dress conservatively and wear head scarfs. There are ads for Gucci, Armani, whichever brands you can imagine targeting women – and men who stare at me like I’m a prostitute for wearing sandals. It has taken time to understand the culture, and where the people are coming from. Like most things, it takes time, context and perspective. And the ability for me as a tourist to remember that in the heat of the moment.

Next: My epic meltdown in Istanbul.

Days Five to Nine

Not a lot happened during these days. Well, whilst I was living through them I’m sure they were fairly eventful, but in hindsight, they were fairly simple days. Pendik is a few bus/train rides outside of Istanbul, maybe a couple of hours’ travel time, and neither Jesse or I felt really keen to take the challenge. The Istanbul bus system is fairly insane, even if you do speak Turkish. Plus, we were both pretty tired from our first week. So we spent relaxed time around Pendik. We went to the local mall, spent time at cafes to use the free WiFi, and walked the local neighbourhood. Basically, we just acted like unemployed youths for a week.

So this blog is more of a photo collage of happenings from these days, with a few small yet memorable highlights. Enjoy!

Below is the cafe down the road where we begrudgingly have to spend hours if we want to connect to the World Wide Web….

Below is a just a very small selection of some of the local pudding talent……

Jesse Reilly is our shopping boy. Here, I was very bored whilst he was shopping. So I picked up a pair of grey men’s undies, yelled out, “Hey Jesse!” and threw them at him whilst simultaneously trying to capture his reaction on camera. Nothing major, but it looked like this:

Hahahaha, still cracks me up….

Basically, in the below photos we are at the sea-side at night after an hour’s walk from Leyla’s place. We just hung out with cute creatures, played in the kid’s play area, drank beer on the rocks and visited THE TARDIS CAFE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

And lucky last, a bunch of even more random photos:

Next: back to Istanbul.

Day Four

We had a sleep-in this morning – 9am. We got up and the house was quiet. We showered, dressed and pulled apart some bread to eat. There was still no sign of life from Leyla’s room after an hour, so we decided to head out and check out the village and find coffee.


We approached a café and asked if they served coffee and they told us no. As we were walking away, a sturdy, cheerful-looking middle-aged Turkish man called us back. He was trying to communicate something very earnestly to us in a booming Turkish voice. He addressed himself only to Jesse, which I am understanding is more common the further out from the main city centres in Turkey. We had no idea what he was saying, but he jauntily led us through the town, about a ten minute walk to a little café, presumable owned by his friend. Then he requested to exchange phone numbers with Jesse. He was very excited and insistent and there were at least five minutes of gesticulation and frustrated talking in Turkish. Then he shook Jesse’s hand, slapped him on the back like Jesse had won a medal, and walked away. It was all quite puzzling, but I have since learned from Leyla that Turkish people have a need to help others and fix problems. This man would have felt desperate to help us. The insistence on the exchange of phone numbers would be so that we could call him if we needed any further assistance.

In Turkey, Nescafe (yes, the brand) is served in cafes as regular coffee. Most cafes also have the option of Turkish coffee. Some will also serve espresso or filter coffee, but it depends. The owner approached us (the only two customers) and again addressed Jesse as to where we were travelling from etc. I sat in the corner making mud pies and trying not to be an embarrassment to either of them. We ordered two Nescafes and spent a couple of hours chatting.



Spot of grocery shopping.



When we got home, Leyla was still asleep. It was nearly 2pm. She seemed very sleepy and a little confused that we were up so early when she heard us come in. She insisted on making breakfast for us. We had already bought a loaf of bread and some cheese on the way home, and added this to the table. We all sat on the  balcony, and ate apple, grapes, olives, feta cheese, yellow cheese, scrambled eggs, salad, bread and tea. My gut was enormous by the end of it.

Jesse and I were both feeling curious about our itinerary. Leyla had suggested to us a full day of sight seeing, and was still talking as such. But it was now past 3pm and the two of us wondered how this would occur. She had also warned us that she would be taking us dancing at Taksim, and that we would be having a big night out.


Pendik (Leyla’s suburb) is located on the Asian continent (Anatolia) and outside of Istanbul central. Instanbul is on the European continent. To get to Istanbul from Pendik, you need to cross a bridge or go via ferry. We caught a ferry from Kadikoy to Eminonu. Along the way, we saw Galita Tower, Ayasophia, New Mosque, some palace and Blue Mosque.

DSCF1018 DSCF1019 DSCF1020 DSCF1021 DSCF1023 DSCF1024 DSCF1026 DSCF1027 DSCF1028 DSCF1029 DSCF1030 DSCF1031 DSCF1032 DSCF1033 DSCF1034 DSCF1035 DSCF1036 DSCF1037 DSCF1038 DSCF1039 DSCF1040 DSCF1041 DSCF1043 DSCF1044 DSCF1045  DSCF1047 DSCF1049 DSCF1050 DSCF1051 DSCF1052 DSCF1057 DSCF1059 DSCF1060 DSCF1061 DSCF1063 DSCF1064 DSCF1066 DSCF1068 DSCF1069 DSCF1071 DSCF1072 DSCF1073 DSCF1075 DSCF1076 DSCF1077 DSCF1078 DSCF1079 DSCF1080 DSCF1081 DSCF1082 DSCF1084 DSCF1085 DSCF1086

We visited New Mosque and were allowed to go on the tourist section. Women are required to wear head scarfs and everyone must take off their shoes and carry them in a bag whilst inside. It was very, very beautiful. I felt peaceful, and, at the same time, angry. This isn’t a political or religious commentary piece, just a snapshot of my honest reaction to various places along my travels. I felt angry that only men could pray in the main area, amidst all the splendour and grandeur, and that women were relegated to a plain area down the back near the entrance with the tourists, roughly the size of a bus.

DSCF1098 DSCF1097 DSCF1096 DSCF1095 DSCF1094 DSCF1093 DSCF1092 DSCF1091 DSCF1090 DSCF1088 DSCF1087

We then went for a walk through the Spice Bazaar. It’s hard to do it justice in a written piece, but I loved it. Excessively crowded, both with people and wares, there were sweets, spices, cloths and trinkets enough to tempt even the most tight-wad traveller. Salesman were at every stall, engaging the crowds and enticing people’s custom. We bought some amazing turkish delight, which a young man cut off a massive block with a mini scimitar. There were many aisle and one could easily spend half a day in there, but we maybe spent an hour. The spice bazaar was established in 1660, and with the crowds and the diverse, high-quality range of goods, it’s easy to see how it comes to enjoy such longevity.

Turkish Coffee

DSCF1159Once we emerged, Leyla could see we needed a break. We sat down at a traditional Turkish cafe and ordered Turkish coffee (which is always served with some pieces of Turkish delight). By far, the best part of this experience was learning how to read the coffee grinds, much like some gypsies read tea-leaves. We spent maybe 40 minutes entirely engrossed in this activity. This traditionally is only done with Turkish coffee, however. My cup had a lot of activity going on in it apparently!

DSCF1153 DSCF1151

DSCF1152                          DSCF1156


Tipping our cups upside down to cool; putting something metal on each one to assist in the cooling process!


Traditional Turkish coffee cart

Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to go inside either of these (we missed the visitor times) but we hung around outside the touristy area and took a bunch of random photos.

Dinner and Cultural Exchange

DSCF1220   DSCF1223       After all of our sight-seeing, Leyla insisted on taking us for traditional sea-side fare – bread and fish. Jesse and I were both very, very hungry and this sounded like a great idea. We walked back to the sea side and towards a row of restaurants underneath Galata Bridge (best explained here:

DSCF1209There were dozens of fishing lines hanging down from on top. Leyla ordered for us and we were delighted when three half-litre mugs of beer appeared at our table, as well as enormous, fresh bread rolls each with a large fillet of fish, as well as lettuce and onion. We also squeezed lemon juice onto it. I have no idea wheat kind of fish it was, but it was delicious.DSCF1213 and I were very full afterwards but Leila, who probably weighs maybe 40kgs, ordered a second beer and looked surprised when we didn’t. Then she chain smoked and we had a very funny cultural exchange, which is best explained in pictures. Jesse ordered Pepsi and I ordered Nescafe whilst we sat around for another hour and chatted. We were starting to understand that in Europe, 11pm is still very early, and there is still the rest of the night to enjoy. So we took our time and tried not to look tired.


Cultural exchange










DSCF1228DSCF1230 At Araf.

This blog does not adequately describe how much walking we do a day. It is a lot, at least several kilometres. Which is why there is also a large focus on food! So again, after scrawling “See you Next Tuesday” on Galata bridge, we walked up to Taksim and went to a night club to dance. It was an awesome club, with a mix of Western and traditional Turkish dance music, and we were there for maybe three hours. I loved seeing how there was more of a focus on actual dancing and having fun than getting completely wasted. Both Turkish men and women have great moves.

After this, it was definitely home time. Trying not to fall asleep on the bus (which was waaaayyy overcrowded at 4am) we finally got home and crashed around 5am. It had been an awesome night.



DSCF1229 DSCF1226 DSCF1224

DSCF1221  DSCF1222 DSCF1214

DSCF1046  IMG_0420